One thing I taught my kids last year was to ask “What else can I do?” to help them learn the important skill of finishing a job well. They still use it at the end of kitchen clean-up after dinner, and the question is music to my ears.

And one of my favorite new questions to ask my kids is, “What are you going to do?” This one helps them learn to solve their own problems.

I just spent a few days with a college friend who’s blessed with a calm, positive demeanor, one that has made her a lovely person to be with and serves her well as a mom, too. Her two daughters are polite, engaging girls who are articulate and bright. My friend shared a story that I loved so much and demonstrated such brilliant parenting that I have to pass it along.

Here’s what happened:

While packing to go to her great uncle’s out-of-town funeral, my friend instructed her daughter to pack a dress or skirt to wear, something nicer than the normal jeans or leggings. Her daughter, an avid reader, didn’t want to take time away from her book, so she packed quickly. When they arrived at their hotel and were getting ready for the funeral, her daughter relayed with horror, “My dress isn’t here!” She had forgotten to pack it. All she had in her luggage was a pair of “jeggings,” decidedly inappropriate attire for the event.

My friend remained composed and with a kind of wisdom 99% of us would not be able to muster in such a situation, especially with the time crunch, she said calmly to her daughter, “Well, you know you can’t wear jeggings to your great uncle’s funeral, so what are you going to do about it? I’m going to get ready while you figure it out.”

With that, my friend left to get herself dressed for the funeral. After she was ready and came back into the hotel room, her daughter told her of how she planned to solve the problem she had created. She’d located a Target store that was on the way to the funeral where they could quickly stop to purchase a dress. Then she asked her mom, “Can I reimburse you by working it off?” She agreed to pay her mom back with a series of chores, including cleaning and vacuuming the interior of her mom’s car.

The plan went off without a hitch, and they made it to the funeral, appropriately dressed and without any yelling or tears.

The reason my friend had ended up sharing the story with me was that I had commented on how spotless her car was. It looked like a brand new car. So not only had her daughter repaid the debt, she had done an excellent job cleaning the car.

My friend’s daughter made a mistake, figured out how to solve the problem, and followed through with experiencing the consequences of her mistake. Not only did she practice valuable problem solving, I’m guessing she’ll be more careful with her packing next time they go on a trip.

The Shorts Crisis

I had a similar parenting opportunity a month ago when my eighth-grade son called from school just before his team was leaving for an away soccer game. He didn’t have his soccer uniform shorts, because he had grabbed a white uniform top thinking it was shorts. I was at work, and our home is too far from school for me to help him. Besides, I’ve vowed not to do anymore “rescuing” after reading so many articles and books about the damage we do by not letting our kids fail. I had asked my son in the morning, “Do you have everything you need for soccer?” And, he had responded that yes, he did.

When he called with his shorts crisis, I said, “That’s a bummer. What are you going to do?” He then told me he was going to the athletic office to see if they had an extra pair of shorts he could use. I told him that was a great idea, and we hung up. I never heard back, but when I showed up at the game later, he wasn’t playing in his underwear, so he apparently had worked it out.

Parents are important to their kids.

As parents, we can have a positive influence on the choices our kids make and the path they take. Our role in helping guide them through life is vital. But how do we do that best, without hovering or smothering or nagging or yelling?

Sharing our own stories and mistakes, and letting our kids know that we didn’t just magically become the functioning adults we are today, is valuable.

It’s also valuable to stay calm when our kids make a mistake and help guide them to problem solve on their own rather than freaking out or swooping in for the rescue.

Maintaining a close, supportive relationship with my kids is something I value.

Fostering their responsibility and independence does not mean never communicating with them. But it is important that our relationship transitions, especially during their teen years, into one of a trusted advisor rather than rescuer and problem solver.

I want my adult children to think of me as a resource and someone to call when they need some support or advice. The tricky part is what to actually say when they do text or call with an SOS. It’s important that we remain supportive while also giving our kids a vote of confidence in their own ability to solve problems and make decisions.

Memorize a line that’s comfortable for you and that includes empathy for them and their problem, along with a question about how they plan to solve it. Something like, “That sounds really hard. I’m sorry you’re going through that. What are you thinking about doing?”

When our kids ask us what they should do in a given situation (a failed midterm at college comes to mind), rather than launch into all the steps they need to take—which we learned ourselves through our own mistakes and failures back when we were their age—we should instead ask questions to help them come up with their own solution.

  • Help them brainstorm ideas to address the issue.
  • Be a sounding board.
  • Encourage them to try their different ideas, and suggest others if they’re really stuck.
  • Praise them for what they come up with:
    “That sounds like a great first step.”
    “I like that tactic! Great problem solving!”

Remember that for each problem they figure out how to solve on their own, they will get a boost of confidence in themselves.

Competence breeds confidence.

Our kids will not become confident, flourishing adults if we repeatedly tell them how awesome they are or constantly rescue them from their mistakes. When they begin to see their own competence and ability to make decisions and solve problems without us stepping in and taking over, they will gain confidence.

I know I’ll have many more opportunities to ask my kids, “What are you going to do?” I hope you’ll have the opportunity to try out this magical parenting question, too.

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